Shepherds Wanted

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. – Titus 1:5-9 ESV

One of the first things Titus was to concentrate on was the appointment of elders for the local churches in Crete. As Paul’s letter will shortly disclose, there was a problem with disorder and doctrinal disruption among the believers on the island. Paul will describe these individuals as “rebellious people who engage in useless talk and deceive others” (Titus 1:10 NLT).  He will accuse them of “turning whole families away from the truth by their false teaching” (Titus 1:11 NLT). And to make matters worse, they were doing so for financial gain. That’s why Paul reminds Titus that he has been left in Crete to “complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you” (Titus 1:5 NLT).

Paul gave Titus a two-part commission. His first priority was to put in order or to complete what was lacking or left undone. There were some issues within the church there that needed to be taken care of, and Paul spends a good portion of his letter explaining exactly what the issues were. But the second part of Titus’ commission was the appointment of elders. Paul knew that Titus was going to need help. A big reason for the lack of order was the void of qualified leaders. If any organization finds itself lacking reputable and responsible leadership, someone will rise up to fill the void. There will always be those who step into the leadership vacuum and attempt to use their power and influence to take charge. And evidently, that was exactly what was happening on Crete.

So, Paul told Titus to take care of the problem by appointing men to help him lead the local body of believers. The responsibilities were too great for one man to handle on his own. But Paul insisted that Titus was not to settle for second best. Those whom Titus appointed to lead the church were going to have to meet certain qualifications in order to even be considered.

But it’s important to note that Paul’s description of the qualifications has everything to do with character and has little to say about biblical knowledge, academic aptitude, business savvy, or even leadership skills. Instead, Paul mentions qualities and characteristics that would have been visible to all those who knew these men. Titus was to look for the outward evidence of an inward transformation that had taken place in the lives of these men due to their relationship with Christ and their knowledge of the Word of God.

Each of them was to have “a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught,” so that he might “be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong.” (Titus 1:9 NLT). In other words, they had to have a knowledge of the truth of the gospel and the realities regarding God and His redemptive plan for man. That was the only way they would be able to refute falsehood and defend the good news from attack. Worldly leadership qualities would not be enough because they would be engaged in spiritual warfare.

Paul appears to be contrasting the character of these future church leaders and those who were doing harm to the church. Those leading who would lead the body of Christ had to be men who were above reproach or blameless. This doesn’t suggest that they were somehow perfect or sinless. The Greek word Paul used is anegklētos and it conveys the idea that these men were to have no glaring character flaws. They were not to be guilty of living their lives in a way that would cause people to point their fingers in accusation, resulting in harm to the reputation of the church.

They were to be loving husbands with reputations for faithfulness. They were to be fathers who had proven themselves to be capable leaders at home, having children who had come to faith in Christ, and who modeled lives of moral integrity and obedience. This would seem to suggest that Paul was recommending that Titus look for older men with children who had been in Christ long enough to have demonstrated their godly character.

Paul went on to say that an elder candidate “must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money” (Titus 1:7 NLT). Instead, he was to “enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life” (Titus 1:8 NLT).

It’s interesting to note that Paul had to be so specific in his list of qualifying character traits, and h went out of his way to list disqualifying characteristics as well. Arrogance, anger, greed, violence, and alcohol abuse would all be huge detriments to godly leadership. They were outward signs of someone who was under the control of the flesh and not the Spirit. In fact, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul provides an even more detailed list of those characteristics that mark someone who is living according to their sinful nature.

…sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division,  envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these… – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

A man who is controlled by his own flesh is going to make a lousy leader. He will be disruptive and, potentially, destructive. And it’s obvious that the church on Crete already had enough negative influences impacting it. Titus was going to need godly men whose lives reflected their reliance upon the Spirit’s control.

Titus was going to need help in dealing with the disorder and negative moral influences within the churches on Crete. He couldn’t handle it on his own. So, Paul emphasized the need for him to find the right kind of men to lovingly lead the flock of God, providing much-needed discipline, and modeling the character of Christ to all those around them.

One of the main qualifications these men were to have was a love for the gospel. Paul tells Titus that each of them “must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught” (Titus 1:9 NLT). They were to remain committed to the gospel message by which they had come to faith in Christ.

One of the problems going on in Crete was the influence of those teaching what Paul refers to as a false gospel. There were those who were preaching something other than salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. They were adding to the gospel. Paul will remind Titus that people were “listening to Jewish myths and the commands of people who have turned away from the truth” (Titus 1:14 NLT). So, the men Titus chose to help him lead the church were going to have to be men who were committed to the truth of the gospel message. They were not to accept or even tolerate alternative versions of the truth. As shepherds of God’s flock, they were to refute all false gospels and destructive heresies.

These men were not to function as a board of directors. They were not to see themselves as figureheads or some kind of ad hoc advisory board for Titus. No, they were called to be overseers, shepherds, and pastors of the flock of Jesus Christ. They were to be godly in character and bold in their witness.

It’s easy to see that Paul had a strong view of eldership. He knew these men were indispensable to the spiritual well-being of the church. This is why he told the elders in Ephesus: “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders” (Acts 20:28 NLT).

We live in the midst of an ungodly world and there is an ongoing need for godly men who will step forward and provide leadership and protection for the flock of God. The church needs men of character who are led by the Spirit of God and committed to the Word of God. Disorder and disruption are all around us. That’s why qualified men are in great need, even today.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Our Once-and-For-All Sacrifice

1 “On the first day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work. It is a day for you to blow the trumpets, and you shall offer a burnt offering, for a pleasing aroma to the Lord: one bull from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish; also their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for the bull, two tenths for the ram, and one tenth for each of the seven lambs; with one male goat for a sin offering, to make atonement for you; besides the burnt offering of the new moon, and its grain offering, and the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offering, according to the rule for them, for a pleasing aroma, a food offering to the Lord.

“On the tenth day of this seventh month you shall have a holy convocation and afflict yourselves. You shall do no work, but you shall offer a burnt offering to the Lord, a pleasing aroma: one bull from the herd, one ram, seven male lambs a year old: see that they are without blemish. And their grain offering shall be of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for the bull, two tenths for the one ram, 10 a tenth for each of the seven lambs: 11 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the sin offering of atonement, and the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings. Numbers 29:1-11 ESV

Beginning in Numbers 28 and continuing through chapter 29, Moses provides a synopsis of the various public sacrifices that the people of Israel were required to make. There was a daily sacrifice of two lambs, as well as a sacrifice of two additional lambs each Sabbath day. On the first day of each month, they were to sacrifice two bulls, one ram, seven lambs, and one goat. Then, during each day of the seven-day-long Feast of Unleavened Bread, they were to sacrifice two bulls, one ram, seven lambs, and one goat. During Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks, they were to offer the same number of sacrifices. On the first day of the seventh month, they were to offer one bull, one ram, seven lambs, and one goat. On the Day of Atonement, they were to offer the same thing. Then for eight straight days during the Feast of Booths, they were to offer their largest number of sacrifices:

Day 1– 13 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 2 – 12 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 3 – 11 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 4 – 10 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 5 – 9 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 6 – 8 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 7 – 7 bulls, 2 rams, 14 lambs, 1 goat
Day 8 – 1 bull, 1 ram, 7 lambs, 1 goat

And each and every one of the sacrifices was to made “to the Lord.” They were to be a pleasing aroma to Him and were to be offered as an atonement for their sins and in order to maintain a right relationship with Him in the days to come. There were many sacrifices because of the sheer volume of sins among a nation of so many people. There was never an end to the need for the making of sacrifices and the atoning for sins. It was to be a perpetual requirement for the people – UNTIL God instituted a better plan.

There was a day coming when God would send His Son as the ultimate sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He would provide a permanent solution to man’s sin problem.

In John 6, we read the words of Jesus stating, “It was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33 ESV).

Under the system God established for the people of Israel, the sacrificial animals had to be provided by the people. They had to offer unblemished animals to God on their own behalf. But in the scenario that Jesus paints, He describes Himself as a sacrifice given by God for the people. Jesus used some very strange language that confused His disciples. He spoke of Himself as the bread of life and said, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:50-51 ESV).

His choice of words shocked His hearers.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” – John 6:52 ESV

But rather than clarify His message, Jesus responded with more of the same.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” – John 6:53-54 ESV

Of course, Jesus was not speaking of the literal consumption of His flesh and blood. He was referring to trust and belief in the coming sacrifice of His life on the cross for the sins of mankind. When we take in food, we trust that it will sustain us and supply us with life, In the same way, Jesus was saying that men will be required to “take in” His death on the cross, believing that it alone can provide them with forgiveness of their sins and eternal life.

But Jesus points out that this particular sacrifice was provided for us by God. He did what only He could do. In the book of Hebrews we read, “For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:1-4 ESV).

Until God sent His Son as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind, the people of God were caught in a cycle of sin and sacrifice. Their best efforts to remain in a right relationship with God were temporary and incomplete. They had to bring their best animals and sacrifice them to God in order to stave off their own execution for their sins. But in the New Testament, we read of God sacrificing His best in order to atone for the sins of mankind.

Paul tells us, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 ESV). God provided the singular and all-sufficient sacrifice of His Son – for us. In essence, the sacrifice of Jesus should be a “pleasing aroma” to us. This sacrifice was made for our benefit and for our consumption. And not only do we receive forgiveness from sin, but we also gain life – eternal life.

Jesus told His audience, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40 ESV). He was offering a permanent solution to the problem of sin, through His shed blood and crucified body. And yet, the people of His day were more concerned with literal bread and their own sad, temporary lives. They had come to Jesus seeking more food because He had miraculously fed them the evening before. He had filled their stomachs with bread and fish, and they craved more of the same.

When Jesus spoke of bread from heaven that gives life to the world, they responded, “Sire, give us this bread always” (John 6:34 ESV). But they wanted real bread, not the metaphorical or spiritual kind. They were stuck on a temporal, earthly plane, and failed to see that God was providing an offering for them that would do for them what they could never do for themselves.

It amazes me to think that God made a sacrifice on my behalf. He sent His Son to die for me. In the Old Testament sacrificial system, the people had to provide their own sacrifice, and it could only forestall or delay the inevitable reality of death. It could prolong life on this planet, but not provide life for eternity. Their sacrifices were temporal and eventually, ineffective at sustaining life. But God’s offering of His Son’s body and blood provides everlasting life. Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:58 ESV).

All I have to do is receive God’s offering and believe that it is sufficient to pay for my sins and provide life more abundantly, both now and for eternity. Just as I eat bread and rely on it to sustain me, I must consume the sacrifice of God’s Son and allow Him to provide me with life everlasting. God has made a sacrifice on my behalf. He has sent His Son to die in my place. No more lambs, goats, bulls, or rams. Jesus offered Himself to God as a pleasing aroma, an acceptable sacrifice. And God offered His Son for me as a permanent solution to my ongoing sin problem. I live because He died. The sacrifice of Jesus by God was done for me, but not because of me. I didn’t deserve it. I had not earned that kind of gift. It was while I was in the depth of my own sin and hopelessness that God sent His Son as an offering on my behalf. The Son of God became the Bread of Life so that I might have eternal life. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

But God…

1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV

Paul put a strong emphasis on the future but he never forgot the past. When addressing believers, he strived to stress the eternal significance of their redemption. He wanted them to understand that their faith in Christ had both immediate and long-term implications. They could enjoy the present benefits of a restored relationship with God, as revealed by the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
But the Spirit was also intended as a sign or proof of their inheritance to come (Ephesians 1:13-14).

But Paul knew that, in order for believers to truly appreciate the present and future blessings of God, they must constantly recall their former condition as enemies of God. There was a time when all followers of Christ stood on the other side of the door of grace. As Paul will remind the Ephesians believers in the very next section of his letter, “In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope” (Ephesians 2:12 NLT). This is the very same message he gave to the believers in Galatia.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. – Galatians 4:8 ESV

Paul understood the power of recall. He knew that an accurate memory of the past was essential if the Ephesians were going to cultivate an appreciation for all that God had accomplished on their behalf. Looking back could provide a much-needed reminder of just how gracious God had been. Their salvation had been undeserved. They had been enemies of God, living in open rebellion to His will and ways. And Paul pulls no punches in describing the desperate state of their former condition.

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. – Ephesians 2:1-2 NLT

Paul believed that having a healthy and honest view of the past was essential for understanding the glorious nature of God’s gift of salvation. Jesus had not come to redeem the righteous. He had not sacrificed His life on behalf of the good and the godly, but for those who were sin-enslaved and recognized their need for a Savior. On one occasion, when the Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for associating with notorious sinners, He responded, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Mark 2:17 NLT).

Paul’s mention of the devil was intended to stress the former enslavement of the Ephesian believers. Before coming to faith in Christ, they had not been free to do as they pleased. They had been the slaves to Satan himself, “the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God” (Ephesians 2:2 NLT). In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul described the sinister role of Satan in sobering terms.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

And Paul’s obsession with Satan’s enslavement of the lost was well-founded. It was based on the message he had received from Jesus at the time of his conversion on the road to Damascus. He shared the details of this encounter in his trial before King Agrippa.

“And the Lord replied, ‘I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting. Now get to your feet! For I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant and witness. Tell people that you have seen me, and tell them what I will show you in the future. And I will rescue you from both your own people and the Gentiles. Yes, I am sending you to the Gentiles to open their eyes, so they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God. Then they will receive forgiveness for their sins and be given a place among God’s people, who are set apart by faith in me.’” – Acts 26:15-18 NLT

Paul’s commission from Jesus had been to help set captives free. His entire ministry had been to bring good news, to open the eyes of the blind, and to set the captives free. And Paul knew that, in doing so, he was simply continuing the ministry of Jesus Himself. When Jesus appeared at the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth, He had read a passage from the scroll of Isaiah the prophet.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.” – Luke 4:18-19 NLT

And when He had finished, Jesus had sat down and calmly but boldly declared, “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” (Luke 4:21 NLT). Now, Paul was carrying on the mission that Jesus had begun. He had been tasked with the job of setting captives free and, somewhat ironically, his efforts had earned him imprisonment in Rome. Yet, he continued to use his pen to proclaim the glorious nature of the freedom made possible through faith in Christ. And he reminded the Ephesians that every believer, including himself, had at one time been a slave to Satan and an enemy of God, “following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:3 NLT).

But God…

Those two simple words form one of the most powerful and impactful sentences in the entire Bible. Paul reveled in the idea of God’s undeserved, yet undeniable intervention in mankind’s desperate condition.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) – Ephesians 2:4-5 NLT

Mercy, love, grace. Those three words form the foundation of Paul’s thinking on this matter. God showered sinful, enslaved humanity mercy (undeserved kindness). He poured out His unselfish, sacrificial love on those who deserved His justice and wrath. And it was all a display of His unmerited favor (grace) and lovingkindness.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to understand that their salvation had been totally undeserved. They had done nothing worthy of God’s love, mercy, and grace. Their transformation from enemies of God to sons and daughters of God had been the work of God alone. And Paul is unapologetic in his defense of God’s sovereign role in the salvation of sinful humanity.

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. – Ephesians 2:8 NLT

This point is essential to Paul’s argument, which is why he repeats it three separate times.

It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved! – vs 5

So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us – vs 7

God saved you by his grace when you believed. – vs 8

For Paul, one of the greatest sins a believer can commit is to attempt to rob God of glory by taking credit for something He alone has done. That is why he places so much emphasis on salvation being a gift and not a reward. It is not earned or merited. It is not a form of payment for services rendered.

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

And yet, believers find it so easy to take credit for something over which they had no control. Their only role was to receive that which was freely given. Their blinded eyes were opened by God. The chains that once bound them were broken by God. The sins that once condemned them were forgiven by God. Their remarkable transformation had been the work of a loving, gracious, and merciful God.

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. – Colossians 2:13-14 NLT

And there had been a divine purpose behind this radical reformation of their lives. The gift of salvation was not to be wasted or squandered. Their new identity as God’s chosen people was not to be taken lightly or treated flippantly. God had an objective in mind. His redemptive plan was not arbitrary or pointless. And Paul reminds the Ephesians that they were literal works of art, God’s “workmanship” (poieme). They were like priceless masterpieces, created by the hand of the Creator-God, and intended to bring Him glory. And the greatest way God’s people can bring Him glory is by doing what He redeemed them to do.

He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

No longer slaves to sin, the Ephesians were free to do the will of God. With their eyes opened, they could clearly see. With their chains broken, they could freely serve. With their former sins forgiven, they could gratefully obey. They were new creations designed to live new lives in the power of the Spirit of God. And God had important work for them to do.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Life Under the Gracious Gaze of Almighty God

1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” Then Abram fell on his face. And God said to him, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.”  Genesis 17:1-8 ESV

Hagar eventually obeyed God, leaving the wilderness behind and returning to the household of Abram. In due time, God fulfilled His promise to the slave girl and she gave birth to a son, whom she name Ishmael, in keeping with God’s command.

“Behold, you are pregnant
    and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
    because the Lord has listened to your affliction.” – Genesis 16:11 ESV

Yet, just a few verses later, Moses seems to indicate that it was Abram who named the boy.

So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born. – Genesis 16:15-16 NLT

Rather than considering this as some sort of biblical contradiction, it makes more sense to view it as an example of God’s sovereign, behind-the-scenes activity. It was He who had decreed that the boy would be born, and it was he had selected his name. And whether God used Hagar as the instrument through which He communicated His divine wishes to Abram, or He visited Abram in a dream, He ensured that His decree would be followed. The boy’s name would be Ishmael (God hears).

The birth and naming of Ishmael were meant to send a message to Abram. That God had heard the cries of the abandoned Hagar in the wilderness should restore Abram’s confidence in God’s ability to hear his cries of fear and doubt. Abram and his wife Sarai were God’s chosen couple, and He had clearly indicated His intentions to use them as the vessels through whom He would make a great nation and shower blessings on the rest of the world. But the whole reason Ishmael existed was that Sarai had doubted God’s ability to pull off His promise through her. She was old and beyond child-bearing age. And to make matters worse, she was barren. So, she had decided that the only way the promise could be fulfilled was if Abram fathered a child with her Egyptian maidservant.

Sarai’s plan had accomplished her goal but had failed to fulfill God’s promise. Abram had a son but, according to God, he was still lacking a divinely approved heir. Ishmael would end up siring a multitude of descendants (Genesis 15:10), but they would not be the ones through whom God would bless the nations. In fact, according to God’s message to Hagar, Ishmael’s descendants would “live in open hostility against all his relatives” (Genesis 16:12 NLT).

So, Abram had a son, but he was still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise. And, as Abram watched Ishmael grow from infancy to adolescence, he would continue to wait – 13 long years. At the ripe old age of 99, Abram received a message from God.

“I am El-Shaddai—‘God Almighty.’ Serve me faithfully and live a blameless life. I will make a covenant with you, by which I will guarantee to give you countless descendants.” – Genesis 17:1-2 NLT

This encounter with God would prove to be a watershed moment in the life of Abram. While this was not the first time he had heard from God, it would be the one occasion that left the deepest impression on his life. For 13 years, he had most likely been assuming that Ishmael would be his heir. From his perspective, Hagar’s return from the wilderness was a sign from God that Ishmael was to be the long-awaited offspring through whom God would work. Abram had received no divine message to the contrary.

So, after what appears to be 13 years of divine silence, Abram receives a visit from God. For the first time in their lengthy relationship, God introduces Himself to Abram as ʾel shadday, (El Shaddai), a name that is most often translated as “God Almighty.” In using this divine appellation, God was letting Abram know that He was fully capable of accomplishing His will and fulfilling His promises without human assistance. He was the almighty, all-powerful God of the universe. He had created the heavens and the earth. He held all things together. And God wanted Abram to know that old age and barrenness would prove to be no problem for Him.

At 13 years of age, Ishmael was on the cusp of becoming a man. And in His omniscience, God knew exactly what Abram was thinking. This 99-year-old father of a teenager had made the assumption that Ishmael would be his heir.  But he was about to discover just how wrong he was and just how great God is.

Back in chapter 15, God had made a covenant with Abram. It had been a unilateral and unconditional covenant. In other words, God had declared His intentions but had placed no requirements on Abram. On this particular occasion, Abram had expressed his disappointment with God’s plan.

“You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.” – Genesis 15:3 NLT

He had already decided that he was going to have to make Eliezer, his manservant, his adopted son, and heir. But God had rejected that option and reiterated His plan.

“No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 NLT

God had reconfirmed His commitment to give Abram a son but He would do it on His terms. That son would not be adopted. He would be the biological offspring of Abram. And God had let Abram know that, from that one son, He would provide Abram with more descendants than there are stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5).

God had sealed His covenant commitment to Abram by walking through the divided carcasses of the animals that Abram had sacrificed. He had made a blood commitment to fulfill the promise He had made. But He had demanded nothing of Abram. Now, years later, God once again confirmed His commitment to multiply Abram greatly. But this time, He includes an interesting addendum to the agreement.

“I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly.” – Genesis 17:1-2 ESV

This statement from God must have left the 99-year-old Abram stunned and shaking in his sandals. The almighty God seemed to be placing a condition on the covenant He had made with Abram. And this condition was anything but easy. God was demanding that Abram live a blameless life. And the impossible nature of this command did not escape Abram. As soon as he heard them, he fell on his face. He knew he was completely incapable of pulling off this divine demand. But he failed to grasp what God was really saying to him.

God was not demanding sinless perfection from His fallen and flawed servant. He was not placing a condition on the covenant that required Abram to live in unwavering obedience and moral purity. But, based on Abram’s reaction, that’s likely how he interpreted it. And sadly, that’s how many Christians view this passage today. We hear in God’s words a requirement that we live without sin and in perfect obedience to all His commands. And we wrongly assume that, if we don’t, we will miss out on His blessings for us. We make His promises to us and love for us conditional.

That’s why it is essential that we understand what God was saying to Abram. The Hebrew word for “walk” is הָלַךְ (hālaḵ) and it means to “to walk back and forth; to walk about; to live out one’s life.” Abram is being encouraged to conduct his life with the constant awareness that Almighty God is watching. Nothing escapes His notice. He is the all-seeing, all-knowing God. Abram was to have a constant awareness of God’s presence that would influence every area of his life.

But what about God’s demand that Abram “be blameless?” Was He requiring sinless perfection? Once again, the Hebrew language sheds some light on these questions. God demanded that Abram be תָּמִים (tāmîm), a word that is rich in meaning. It conveys the idea of completeness, wholeness, and integrity. God is not requiring Abram to live a life free from all sin. He is demanding that Abram recognize the wholeness of his calling. God wanted all of Abram. He had not chosen him simply as a biological vessel through whom He would create a mighty nation. No, God wanted every area of Abram’s life: body, mind, soul, and spirit. There was to be no compartmentalization. Abram was not free to hold back any area of his life from God’s control or use. In other words, Abram was being told to live the entirety of his life before God’s all-seeing eyes. There was nothing that God could not see. There was no area of Abram’s life that he was to consider as off-limits to God’s control.

And as Abram lay prostrate on the ground, God reiterated His covenant and His promise.

“This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them!” – Genesis 17:4-6 NLT

Abram received a confirmation of the original covenant, as well as a new name. And that new name carried powerful significance.

“…its significance is in the wordplay with אַב־הֲמוֹן (ʾav hamon, “the father of a multitude,” which sounds like אַבְרָהָם, ʾavraham, “Abraham”). The new name would be a reminder of God’s intention to make Abraham the father of a multitude.” – NET Bible Study Notes

God was letting Abram know that the promise still stood firm but it would not be fulfilled through Ishmael. Sarai’s plan had not accomplished God’s will. There would be another son, and through him, God would fulfill every aspect of the covenant He had made with Abram. As proof of His commitment, God promised to give Abram a sign to go along with his new name. And that sign would be perpetual and permanent, passed down from generation to generation, long after Abram was gone. And once again, God reassures His doubting and sometimes disobedient servant of the incredible nature of the covenant and the promise attached to it.

“This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you. And I will give the entire land of Canaan, where you now live as a foreigner, to you and your descendants. It will be their possession forever, and I will be their God.” – Genesis 17:7-8 NLT

God wasn’t requiring Abram to live a sinless life in order to receive the covenant promises. Abram was being invited to conduct every aspect of his life under the watchful, loving, and covenant-keeping eyes of God Almighty.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

God Begins Again

1 Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.

Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came upon the earth. And Noah and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came upon the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah and his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons with them entered the ark, 14 they and every beast, according to its kind, and all the livestock according to their kinds, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, according to its kind, and every bird, according to its kind, every winged creature. 15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16 And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him. And the Lord shut him in.

17 The flood continued forty days on the earth. The waters increased and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. 18 The waters prevailed and increased greatly on the earth, and the ark floated on the face of the waters. 19 And the waters prevailed so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered. 20 The waters prevailed above the mountains, covering them fifteen cubits deep. 21 And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. 22 Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. Genesis 7:1-24 ESV

For the second time in his narrative of Noah’s life, Moses asserts that he “did all that the Lord had commanded him.”  And while it is easy to take this statement at face value, it’s sometimes difficult to understand just how remarkable a feat Noah’s obedience really was. So, three times in chapter seven alone, Moses attempts to emphasize the incredible nature of Noah’s faithful adherence to the far-from-simple assignment given to him by God.

In chapter six, Moses recorded the detailed instructions given by God to Noah for constructing a massive ark.

Make for yourself an ark of cypress wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it with pitch inside and out.  This is how you should make it: The ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet high.  Make a roof for the ark and finish it, leaving 18 inches from the top. Put a door in the side of the ark, and make lower, middle, and upper decks. – Genesis 6:14-16 NET

It has been estimated that, when completed, this giant boat contained 1 million cubic feet of space. It was as long as 1-1/2 football fields and as tall as a 4-story building. It was less a navigable vessel than a floating shipping container. Having no rudder or sail, this boat was designed to weather the coming floodwaters and provide shelter for Noah, his immediate family, and all the pairs of living creatures God was commanded Noah to collect and protect.

The scale of this project was massive and, even by today’s modern construction standards, it would have posed an impossible feat for one man to pull off. Yet, Noah did it. And nowhere along the way does Noah balk at God’s far-fetched and seemingly impossible assignment. At no point does he question God’s wisdom, second-guess God’s plan, or express doubt in his own ability to pull off such a strange and seemingly impossible task. Noah simply did as he was told.

Moses described Noah as a righteous and blameless man who “walked with God” (Genesis 6:9 ESV). This was a man who lived his life in keeping with God’s will. Over his lifetime, Noah had developed an intimate relationship with God and had learned to trust God for all his needs. Unlike his peers, Noah’s life was not marked by unbridled wickedness and unrighteousness. He was far from perfect, but when compared to the rest of humanity, he was blameless in his generation. It seems that Noah had developed a track record of obeying God. Even the author of Hebrews points out Noah’s penchant for taking God at His word and faithfully following His command.

He obeyed God, who warned him about things that had never happened before. – Hebrews 11:7 NLT

The sheer scale of this project would suggest a rather lengthy construction timeline. The number of trees that had to be harvested and milled would have been staggering. There is no way to ascertain how Noah managed to accomplish a project of this magnitude, even with the help of his three sons. Perhaps God intervened and miraculously provided the materials required to construct the ark. But the text doesn’t seem to indicate any kind of divine superintendence. Even the collecting of the creatures was left up to Noah and his family.

This entire project took time, patience, and years of dogged determination on Noah’s part. And it’s important to remember that Noah was motivated by what he believed to be God’s pending judgment. The whole reason he was building a giant boat far from any body of water was that God had declared His plan to destroy the earth.

“Look! I am about to cover the earth with a flood that will destroy every living thing that breathes. Everything on earth will die.” – Genesis 6:17 NLT

He believed God and, as a result, he obeyed God. And for however many years it took Noah to complete his assignment, he labored faithfully and unceasingly. And the apostle Peter indicates that, while Noah worked, God withheld His judgment.

God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood. – 1 Peter 3:20 NLT

But the day finally came when Noah put the finishing touches on the ark. His work was done and now it was time for God to fulfill His covenant commitment.

“Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you are righteous before me in this generation. – Genesis 7:1 ESV

Noah had proven his faith in God. Against all odds and contrary to human reasoning, Noah had taken God at His word and obeyed. And the author of Hebrews includes Noah among those who are enshrined in his great “Hall of Faith.”

By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. – Hebrews 11:7 ESV

While Noah’s ungodly neighbors continued to live in open rebellion to God, he faithfully submitted his life to the will of God. He demonstrated his complete reliance upon God by hearing and obeying the word of God. And, because of his faith, Noah was declared righteous by God. Even before commending Noah for his faith, the author of Hebrews declared the non-negotiable role that faith plays in mankind’s relationship with God.

…without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 ESV

Noah had spent his life drawing near to God. The building of the ark was just the latest and greatest example of his complete reliance upon God. And because Noah trusted God, he was rewarded with the gift of life while everyone else around him was experiencing the judgment of death.

God did not spare the ancient world—except for Noah and the seven others in his family. Noah warned the world of God’s righteous judgment. So God protected Noah when he destroyed the world of ungodly people with a vast flood. – 2 Peter 2:5 NLT

For 150 days, Noah and his family weathered the storm that deluged the earth. They floated safely above the waters, as the rest of sinful humanity perished. This faithful man and his family were protected and preserved by God. They were graciously spared the judgment that had come upon the earth. But everything and everyone else was subjected to God’s righteous and holy wrath.

Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. – Genesis 7:22-23 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

You Shall Be Blameless

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. 10 There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer 11 or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, 12 for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you. 13 You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, 14 for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this. – Deuteronomy 18:9-14 ESV

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Which is to say that if someone mimics your actions or behavior, they are expressing admiration for you. And while there may be some truth to this idiom, in far too many cases, imitation can be a dangerous game to play. Failure to consider the character of the one you seek to emulate can result in far-from-flattering or beneficial outcomes. Seeking to pattern your life after someone else can be driven by all kinds of unhealthy motives. It is far too easy to focus on the external fruit of their behavior; such as success, wealth, and popularity, while failing to closely examine what they had to do to achieve those results. Did their path to success require that they cut corners, bend the rules, compromise their convictions, or sacrifice their integrity? Better yet, will imitating their lives require those things of you?

As the time approached for the people of Israel to enter the land of promise, Moses spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to prepare them for the formidable task that lay ahead of them. They were entering a new stage in their relationship with God that would be like nothing they had ever experienced before. Their faith in God would be tested in ways they could not even begin to imagine. Their willingness to remain faithful to God would come under constant attack.

Compromise would become a daily temptation. Complacency would be a constant threat to their commitment to God. Remaining set apart to God would be far more difficult than they could know. Maintaining their distinction as God’s holy people was going to require diligence and a determination to remain uncompromisingly committed to Him. Moses had repeatedly communicated their unique status as God’s chosen people.

“But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.” – Deuteronomy 4:20 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. – Deuteronomy 14:2 ESV

“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. – Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV

The Hebrew word for “holy” is qadowsh, and it means “sacred” or “set apart.” The Israelites had been separated out by God and consecrated as His possession. They belonged to Him. Like Adam and Eve, the Israelites had been created by God and set apart for His glory. But their status as His chosen possession was going to require that they live according to His holy standards. They were not free to live as they wished. They could not follow the ways of the world. And God expected them to make the land of Canaan a veritable island of holiness in the sea of wickedness that covered the world.

Three times in five verses, Moses uses the Hebrew word, tow`ebah, to describe the ways of the people occupying the land of Canaan. They were an abomination to God because their ways were morally repugnant to Him. Their behavior was unacceptable to a holy God. So, Moses warns the Israelites from following their “abominable practices.” And he makes it clear that anyone among the Israelites who imitates their ways will be “an abomination to the Lord.”

Rather than mimic the ways of the Canaanites, the people of God were to do everything in their power to remain set apart and distinct. Moses put it in very stark terms.

“You shall be blameless before the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 18:13 ESV

The Hebrew word for “blameless” is tamiym and it carries the idea of wholeness or completeness. It is the very same word God had used when addressing Abraham nearly half a millennium earlier.

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless.” – Genesis 17:1 ESV

While tamiym can be translated as “perfect” or “unblemished,” God was not demanding sinlessness from Abraham. But He was expecting Abraham to live his entire life in keeping with His ways. Abraham was to live an integral or whole life, dedicated to God and set apart for His glory. And Moses was trying to convey the same thought to the people of Israel. He was not expecting them to remain totally free from contamination by the world. That would have been impossible, given their sinful natures and the ubiquitous nature of evil in the world. But Moses wanted them to fully understand just how dangerous compromise with the world would be.

And while most of the abominable practices that Moses pointed out had to do with witchcraft, sorcery, divination, and the occult, all of these things were associated with Canaanite religious practices. Moses knew that the Israelites would be tempted to weave these morally reprehensible practices into their own worship of Yahweh. Compromise would be a constant threat for the Israelites, resulting in their failure to remain tamiym – unblemished and unstained by the world.

God expected His people to live as who they were: His chosen possession. Their lives were to reflect their unique status as His set-apart ones. Enjoying their status as God’s children came with a non-negotiable requirement that they honor the distinctiveness of their position by living holy lives.

There was no room for compromise or complacency. They were to share God’s disgust and disdain for the ways of the Canaanites. They were to resist exposure to and contamination by the abominable practices of the Canaanites. And they were to never forget that God’s will was the complete eradication of the Canaanites and their unholy ways from the land.

When it comes to holiness, imitation of the world is not flattery, it’s idolatry. Compromising our convictions by copying the ways of the world is unacceptable for God’s people. We have been set apart. We belong to Him. As His children, we are to reflect His character and bring glory to His name by the way we live our lives – wholly unto Him.

The religion of the Israelites was totally unique and prescribed by God. It was not the result of man’s imagination and was not to reflect the practices of the pagan nations of the world. God had set Israel apart positionally and practically. Their status as His people was to show up in everyday life, especially when it came to their worship of Him.

There are all kinds of religions in the world, but only one brand of religious activity is acceptable to God. And James describes this kind of religion in very plain terms.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

And, as Paul told his disciple, Titus, the people of God are still expected to live distinctively different lives, not emulating the ways of this world but reflecting our status as God’s chosen people.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God, while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed. – Titus 2:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

 

Blameless in Holiness

11 Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, 12 and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, 13 so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. – 1 Thessalonians 3:11-13 ESV

Paul closes this section of his letter by reiterating his desire to return to Thessalonica. But as he shared earlier in the letter, that desire had been resisted by the enemy.

…we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you — I, Paul, again and again — but Satan hindered us. – 1 Thessalonians 2:17-18 ESV

Yet, Paul knew that his path was determined by God, not Satan. He was fully convinced that his return to Thessalonica was in the hands of the Almighty, and it was his prayer that God the Father and God the Son would make it possible. The Greek word Paul used is kateuthynō, and it means to guide or make straight by the removal of any obstacles or hindrances. Paul will use this same Greek word in his second letter to the Thessalonians.

But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one. And we have confidence in the Lord about you, that you are doing and will do the things that we command. May the Lord direct your hearts to the love of God and to the steadfastness of Christ. – 2 Thessalonians 3:3-5 ESV

Paul knew that what God wanted done would be done. If He wanted Paul to return to Thessalonica, it would happen. Satan himself has no power to thwart God’s will. And Paul knew that God alone possesses the power to remove any obstacles to the believer’s spiritual journey, making it possible for them to experience the love of God and the perseverance of Christ.

For Paul, God was the key to everything. The Trinity was the sole source of the believer’s strength and hope. The Father’s will for man’s redemption, made possible by the work of His Son on the cross, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, are the non-negotiable necessities behind the believer’s transformation from condemned sinner to glorified saint. Paul wanted the Thessalonians to know that any hope they had to live strong, blameless, and holy lives was totally dependent upon the Father, Son, and Spirit. And it was Paul’s constant prayer that God would “establish” or strengthen their hearts so that they might live worthy of their calling.

When Paul uses the word “heart,” he is not referring to the organ that pumps blood through the body. While the Greek word kardia did have that meaning, Paul was using it to refer to the center of all spiritual life. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes it as “the soul or mind, as it is the fountain and seat of the thoughts, passions, desires, appetites, affections, purposes, endeavors.”

Paul knew that the external behavior of the Thessalonians was directly tied to the internal condition of their hearts. Jesus warned that “from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander” (Matthew 15:18 NLT). The Old Testament proverb reads: “Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life” (Proverbs 4:23 NLT). The outward actions of our lives tend to flow from the inward condition of our hearts. That is why any attempts at behavior modification without transformation of the heart are doomed to failure.

The goal, as far as Paul was concerned, was a strong finish. He wanted the believers in Thessalonica to run the race well and keep their eyes on the prize. For him, the journey was meaningless if you didn’t remain focused on the destination. That is how he lived his life.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:14 NLT

And he expected all those under his spiritual care to follow his lead. Which is why he emphasizes “the coming of our Lord Jesus.” The Greek word for “coming” is parousia and it was most often used by Paul to refer to the return of Christ. In fact, in the very next chapter, Paul will provide the Thessalonians with insight into the day when Christ will return for His bride, the church.

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 ESV

Jesus was coming back. That fact is a very important part of the gospel message. Jesus‘ first coming, while epic in nature and essential to the promise of salvation, is incomplete if He does not come again. Jesus promised the disciples that He was going to prepare a place for them. And He told them, “When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am” (John 14:3 NLT). The bad news was that He was leaving them. The good news was that He was coming back some day. And immediately after telling the disciples He was leaving but would be returning some day, He promised to send them His Holy Spirit to indwell and empower them.

“I am leaving you with a gift – peace of mind and heart. And the peace I give is a gift the world cannot give. So don’t be troubled or afraid. Remember what I told you: I am going away, but I will come back to you again.” – John 14:27-28 NLT

That promise holds true for each and every believer in Christ. The Thessalonians had received the gift of the Spirit, who was fully capable of giving the peace of mind and heart. He had the power to transform their inner lives so that their outward behavior reflected their confidence and hope in the promise of their future glorification. Their ability to become like Christ was provided by the Spirit, who would guide and empower them until the return of Christ. But if Christ did not return before they died, they had nothing to fear because they would go to be with Him.

The promised return of Christ is meant to remind us that this life is not all there is. There is life after death. There is glory to come. This temporal existence will be followed by the eternal state. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18 ESV). He told the Corinthian believers: “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17 ESV). And Peter shared Paul’s confident hope in the promise of God.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. – 1 Peter 5:10 ESV

One day we will stand before God blameless in holiness. We will be sinless and completely righteous. That future reality, guaranteed by the word of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Spirit, is to keep us motivated as we live in this fallen, sin-filled world. Any momentary, light afflictions we may have to suffer in this life will pale in comparison to the eternal weight of glory awaiting us.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Growing Together

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14 Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. 17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. 18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. – Philippians 2:12-18 ESV

Paul has just provided the Philippian believers with a vivid portrait of Christ, intended as an illustration of what he means to think like Christ thinks. Paul wants them to have the same attitude or outlook on life that Christ did. For Paul, Christ was the consummate example of humility and selflessness – even though He was God. When faced with the divine plan that required His incarnation and, ultimately His crucifixion, Jesus didn’t cling to His divine status or deem Himself as beneath His royal status as the Son of God. He understood that it was His holiness and worthiness that, when joined with human flesh, would make Him the acceptable sacrifice for the sins of mankind. Jesus humbled Himself, willingly and completely, obeying the will of His Father – all the way to the point of an excruciating and humiliating death on the cross. And He did it all out of love for sinful mankind.

And it was that selfless, sacrificial love that Paul wanted the Philippian believers to emulate. It was what he wanted for each and every congregation he had helped to start. He told the Ephesians:

Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God. – Ephesians 5:2 NLT

And he expanded on this idea when writing to the Colossian believers:

Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. – Colossians 3:12-14 NLT

Notice that Paul is describing an emulation of Christ that shows up in tangible, visible expressions. When Paul speaks of having the mind of Christ, he is not describing some cognitive, intellectual exercise. It is an internal attitude that should result in external actions. Which is why Paul tells the Philippians to “work out your own salvation.” That phrase, “work out” is a single word in the Greek which means, “to do that from which something results.” Paul is not teaching salvation by self-effort. But he is clearly expecting the believers to whom he is writing to put energy and effort into living out the salvation freely provided to them by Christ. The New Living Translation puts it this way: “Work hard to show the results of your salvation.” 

The salvation provided by Christ’s selfless sacrifice of His life was intended to be truly transformational. It didn’t just provide a change in legal status, from guilty and condemned to justified and forgiven. It was meant to result in our ongoing sanctification or transformation into the very character of Christ. Our salvation, provided free of charge by the grace of God alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is meant to produce in us a righteousness that mirrors that of Christ. Remember what Paul told the believers in Philippi in the opening chapter of this letter.

May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation – the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ – for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:11 NLT

That was Paul’s ongoing prayer for them because it was God’s ongoing will for them. Their coming to faith in Christ should result in them becoming increasingly more like Christ. And Paul tells them that their efforts to produce the fruit of their salvation should be accompanied by fear and trembling. And Paul explains what he means by this when he follows it up with the word, “for.” It can be read as “because” and is followed with that which should motivate our fear and trembling: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT). It is the work of God. So, if it is a high priority to Him, it should be to us. And the knowledge that God is personally working in and among us should produce in us a reverence and awe that drives us to cooperate with His efforts on our behalf. Otherwise, we will find ourselves working against the will of God for our lives.

And that brings up an important point. This is a corporate message from Paul that is addressed to the entire Philippian congregation. While there are certainly personal applications we can glean from Paul’s words, he intended them for the body of Christ in Philippi, not individual believers. So, when Paul says, “God is working in you,” he is speaking of the church as a whole. God is attempting to create in them the same sense of unity that He and the Son share. In fact, this was the very thing Jesus prayed for in the garden just hours before His arrest and trials.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” – John 17:21-23 ESV

Remember, Paul has been addressing the need for unity in the church. He has expressed his desire that they be of “the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). And now, he is calling on them to allow their salvation to produce the very character of Christ among them.

But what does that look like in real life? Well, Paul chooses to describe what it doesn’t look like. It won’t be marked by grumbling or disputing. There will be no bickering or backstabbing. In other words, it will be free from disunity. Getting along will be a high priority because the body of Christ is to reflect the very character of Christ. Which brings us back to the model of Christ’s own life: Humility, obedience, selflessness, and sacrifice.

And Paul provides a few positive examples of what Christlikeness should look like in the church: Blamelessness and innocence. Paul is not suggesting perfection or sinlessness. But he is calling for the body of Christ to live with its sins confessed so no one can point a finger of blame. And he is encouraging them to exhibit an innocence or moral purity that gives the outside world no cause to cast dispersions on their witness or the name of Christ. And the impact the church has on the unbelieving world is clearly Paul’s concern here. Notice that he calls on the Philippian congregation to be “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15 ESV). The blemish to which he refers is a potential stain on their corporate witness due to disunity and internal conflict. It was King David who wrote: “How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony!” (Psalm 133:1 NLT). And it was Jesus who said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35 NLT).

Paul makes a personal appeal to the Philippians, asking them to hear what he is saying and to do it for his sake, out of love for him. Like a proud father, he wants to be able to look back on his work among them and know that it was not in vain. He longs to see the fruit of righteousness in their lives. What would devastate Paul would be a church that started strong and ended poorly. To see the church in Philippi devolve into a community dominated by selfish and self-centered individuals would bring shame to Paul as a missionary of the gospel. But it would also denigrate the redemptive work of Christ.

That is why Paul pleads with them to “Hold firmly to the word of life” (Philippians 2:16 NLT). He wants them to cling to the message of the gospel, which includes not only their salvation, but their ongoing sanctification, and their future glorification. They were not to forget that God was working in their midst, transforming them into a bright, shining light that was intended to shine the glory of God into the darkness of Philippi.

Paul was willing to die, to see his life poured out as a drink offering to God. But he wanted his life to have made a difference. He deeply desired to know that the church in Philippi would embrace the mind of Christ and pursue the character of Christ – together. And if their pursuit of Christlikeness brought suffering and sacrifice, Paul wanted them to rejoice with him in the privilege of serving God through obedience to His will – following the example of Christ Himself.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

His Way Is Perfect.

“He sent from on high, he took me;
    he drew me out of many waters.
He rescued me from my strong enemy,
    from those who hated me,
    for they were too mighty for me.
They confronted me in the day of my calamity,
    but the Lord was my support.
He brought me out into a broad place;
    he rescued me, because he delighted in me.

The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
    according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
For I have kept the ways of the Lord
    and have not wickedly departed from my God.
For all his rules were before me,
    and from his statutes I did not turn aside.
I was blameless before him,
    and I kept myself from guilt.
And the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
    according to my cleanness in his sight.

With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
    with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you deal purely,
    and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
You save a humble people,
    but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down.
For you are my lamp, O Lord,
    and my God lightens my darkness.
For by you I can run against a troop,
    and by my God I can leap over a wall.
This God—his way is perfect;
    the word of the Lord proves true;
    he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.”  – 2 Samuel 22:17-31 ESV

 

This section of David’s psalm contains an interesting contrast. In it we will see David continue to exalt His God, while at the same time, seemingly praising himself for his own blamelessness, guiltlessness and righteousness. At first blush, it would appear that David is bragging about something he has no right to claim. Even if this psalm was written in the early days of his reign, immediately after the fall of Saul, David was far from a sinless man. And yet he claims, “The Lord rewarded me for doing right; he restored me because of my innocence” (2 Samuel 22:21 NLT). But wait, there’s more. “I have kept the ways of the Lord; I have not turned from my God to follow evil” (2 Samuel 22:22 NLT). And then he audaciously claims, “I am blameless before God; I have kept myself from sin” (2 Samuel 22:24 NLT). What is going on here? Is David delusional or simply suffering from an overactive sense of self-worth? One of the things we have to remember is that this passage is virtually identical to Psalm 22, written in the early days of David’s reign. This chapter opened with the descriptor: “David spoke to the Lord the words of this song on the day when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.” So this is very early on in his career as king. So context is critical to understanding what David is either saying or claiming. When we read the word, “blameless,” we tend to interpret it as meaning sinless. But it is a word that speaks of integrity of heart or wholeness of character. David was simply saying that he was rescued by God because he had done nothing to deserve God’s displeasure or punishment. David’s suffering under the hand of Saul had not been due to his own sinfulness. He had been the innocent victim of Saul’s anger and jealousy against him. When this psalm had originally been written, David had been coming off years of life as a fugitive, under constant threat of losing his life because of Saul’s hatred for him. And when David writes, “The Lord rewarded me for doing right. He has seen my innocence” (2 Samuel 22:25 NLT), he is simply acknowledging that he had done nothing to deserve his suffering. He had been given two opportunities to take Saul’s life and had refused to do so, out of respect for the Lord’s anointed. He had feared God more than he he despised his own circumstances. David had a clear conscience before God.

But this psalm is less about David than it is about God. It is an acknowledgement that God was all-knowing and fully aware of the circumstances surrounding David’s life. David’s suffering had not been the result of his own sin, but the divine will of a sovereign, all-powerful God. He had seen David’s plight and heard his cries, and He had responded. He had rescued. He had shown Himself faithful to David because David had remained faithful to Him. He had responded to David with integrity because David had shown himself to be a man of integrity. Not all the time. Not every moment of his life. But within the particular context in which this psalm was originally written.

What makes this psalm so interesting is its placement at the close of Second Samuel and at the end of David’s life. It had been written early on in his life, but reappears here when David’s reign in coming to an end. It reflects a reality that David had experienced in his life, but that had not been true every moment of his life. We know of his sin with Bathsheba. We are well aware of the murder of Uriah. We have read about his many faults and failings. David was not always a man of integrity. He didn’t always do the right thing or react in the proper manner. He didn’t always seek God or rely on Him for help. Sometimes he took matters into his own hands. But David did know that, in principle, God rescues the humble, rewards the righteous, and restores the innocent.

But David’s point in all of this is to exalt God, not himself. He is simply trying to state an indisputable reality when it comes to God’s relationship with men. He doesn’t reward the wicked. He doesn’t smile down on the prideful. He refuses to forgive the sins of the wicked, as long as they remain unrepentant and self-reliant. David states, “God’s way is perfect. All the Lord’s promises prove true. He is a shield for all who look to him for protection” That had been David’s experience. He had seen it proven true in his own life. At no point along the way, could David point his finger at God and accuse of Him of dealing falsely or faithlessly with him. God’s way is perfect, even when David’s way was not. God had always dealt faithfully with David. And we have seen that to be the case all along the way as his life’s story has unfolded before us. Even when David had sinned, God had dealt with him lovingly and faithfully. God had repeatedly rescued and restored him. Yes, David had suffered for his sins. He had been forced to endure the consequences of his disobedience to God. But nowhere along the way had God proven unfaithful, unloving or unwilling to keep His promises to David. His ways are perfect. All His promises prove true. He is there when we seek for Him. But He is also there when we fail to recognize or rely upon Him. David may have left God on occasion, but God had not left David.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Doing Right The Right Way.

But thanks be to God, who put into the heart of Titus the same earnest care I have for you. For he not only accepted our appeal, but being himself very earnest he is going to you of his own accord. With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel. And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us, for the glory of the Lord himself and to show our good will. We take this course so that no one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man. And with them we are sending our brother whom we have often tested and found earnest in many matters, but who is now more earnest than ever because of his great confidence in you. As for Titus, he is my partner and fellow worker for your benefit. And as for our brothers, they are messengers of the churches, the glory of Christ. So give proof before the churches of your love and of our boasting about you to these men. – 2 Corinthians 8:16-24 ESV

Paul was unashamedly and boldly asking the Corinthians to participate in a fund-raising effort that would be used to alleviate the suffering of the Hebrew Christians living in Judea. Ongoing persecution and the lingering effects of a recent famine had left them in dire circumstances, and Paul was doing all that he could to raise support from all the churches in Macedonia, Achaia, Asia Minor and Galatia. And the church in Corinth was to be no exception. He wants them to know the joy of participating in the gracious support of their fellow believers, even those whom they had never met. Paul was not commanding the Corinthians to give, because he did not want them to do so out of compulsion or with any sense of regret. But he was unapologetically claiming that their giving would be in keeping with the example of Christ Himself.  Paul reminds them, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9b NLT).

Paul knows that he is doing the right thing. But he has a strong desire to do it in the right way. He is fully aware that everything he does is analyzed and critiqued by his enemies. And while he wasn’t one prone to wasting time worrying about what men thought about him, he did worry about the potential damage his actions might do to the name and cause of Christ. That’s why he was taking special care to handle the collection of the funds in way that was above board and free from accusation by his enemies. He was sending Titus to collect whatever gift the Corinthians were able to provide. They knew Titus and had built a solid relationship with him. But Paul was also sending another individual, “the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (2 Corinthians 8:18 ESV). We do not know who this brother was, but evidently the Corinthians knew exactly who Paul was talking about. He was well-known and well-respected. He had a reputation for trustworthiness, and Paul indicates that he had “been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us” (2 Corinthians 8:19 ESV).

Paul wasn’t taking any changes. He knew that his efforts to raise funds for the Hebrew Christians provided a perfect opportunity for his enemies to accuse him of everything from extortion and greed to larceny and abuse of power. In the end, what Paul was most concerned about was the name of Christ. He did not want to do anything that might damage the reputation of His Savior or detract from the cause of the gospel. So he took extra precautions to ensure that his efforts were blameless and free from any hint of impropriety.

We are traveling together to guard against any criticism for the way we are handling this generous gift. We are careful to be honorable before the Lord, but we also want everyone else to see that we are honorable. – 2 Corinthians 8:20-21 NLT

It was Jesus who said, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 ESV). Peter echoed these words when he wrote, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). As believers, we are to do what is right. But it is just as important that we do right in the right way. We must always consider the outcome of our actions. It is essential that we keep in mind that our conduct is always being analyzed by the lost around us. We are ambassadors for Christ and all that we do in this life is done on His behalf. We speak and act on His part. And even our right actions, if not done in the right way, can produce the wrong results and bring harm to the name of Christ. We cannot live with the attitude, “Who cares what they think?” Our conduct has consequences. Our actions speak volumes. Our every word and deed are potential testimonies that will reflect either positively or negatively on the cause of Christ. What we do matters, but how we do it does as well.

Paul was unashamed to ask the Corinthians for money, but he was unwilling to do it in a way that might damage his reputation, hinder his ministry, or bring shame to the name of Christ. “We don’t want anyone suspecting us of taking one penny of this money for ourselves. We’re being as careful in our reputation with the public as in our reputation with God” (2 Corinthians 8:20-21 MSG). That is how we are to live. That is the attitude we must maintain. Our mission matters. So does our methodology. We must always strive to do the right thing, the godly thing, in the right way – blamelessly and above reproach.